Sixty-year-olds rapping, catching every three or four words. Seventy-year-olds bouncing, timidly at first but with abandon before long. Forty-year-olds and their children, or nieces, or maybe, possibly, their granddaughters, singing together about young, unrequited love.
This is the new generation of pop’s nostalgia. We’re here. The 1990s are retro. Hip-hop is vintage. To say that the audience at the First Niagara Center Thursday night was eclectic isn’t even gracing the surface of this cultural moment. These factions, and many more sensible ones, erupted at every possible cue in rabid, teenage glee. Their yesterday had returned.
The event was The Main Event, a trilogy bill of 1990s and early-aughts pop/rap/R&B superstars Nelly, TLC and headliners New Kids on the Block. This is the Kids’ latest tour package, a bi-annual event by now. Their 2013 tour, featuring Boyz II Men and 98 Degrees, played this arena with the exact same intent of selling recent has-beens and reunited used-to-be’s as commercially viable products.
Like many of its billed attractions, this is a manufactured program of manufactured talent, with manufactured moments of manufactured responses. Some of these facades break down spontaneously to display something genuine within— random teases of laughter among band mates, missed dance-cue bloopers, stagehand pranks. These innocent mishaps were surely helped along by the fact that this was the last stop of the two-month tour. Everyone up there was having fun, but too often when they weren’t supposed to be.
Don’t tell that to their loyal fans, who’d buy a hot dog made of their own teenage memories if it came with a souvenir napkin. It appealed to every demographic, no matter how or when they first heard these songs. There were a few Martha Stewart-types sitting behind me, singing along to every word of TLC’s female-power anthems. They liked Nelly’s opening set, too. Doing his thing, he rapped seductively at four explosive female dancers, while lazily rotating in place at center stage. Some might consider Nelly’s lyrics toward possible female mates to be mildly derogatory. I’ll call it tactlessly romantic. He’s actually considered a sweetheart among hip-hop’s bigger names, go figure.
TLC’s set was the most genuine of the evening, fueled by the trio’s permanent memorial to former band member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who died instantly in a 2002 car crash. The group dominated 1990s charts, and stand as the effective, if forgotten, predecessors to Destiny’s Child. Surviving members Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas sang and danced defiantly through a set list of certifiable ’90s classics: “What About Your Friends,” “Baby, Baby, Baby,” “Red Light Special,” “No Scrubs” and their anthemic “Waterfalls.” Bette Midler is currently touring the country singing the same song.
This gig appeared to mean a lot to these women, who have struggled to regain commercial viability following Lopes’s death, itself preceded by rumors of squabbles, legal woes and label bickering. The raps where Lopes’s sweet, girlish voice would rhapsodize about self-confidence, self-worth and self-love were heard intact, and for the most part without any visual footage to accompany on screen. A few times during her verses, the center stage’s raised platform was lit in a pool of light, her surviving band mates holding down two side stages in honor of their fallen sister. Their brassy appearance polished an already classy demeanor that on stage sanctioned nostalgia’s sweetest potential.
The headliners, however, turned that upside down. The New Kids on the Block, the grandfathers of modern pop’s boy bands, the eternally youthful, the practically middle aged, drew the largest screams, naturally. But their set was just a huge bore, ironic considering the pomp and circumstance that delivered it. Every song played like a finale—confetti blasting multiple times a chorus, pyrotechnics punctuating a simple downbeat, and an elevated stage platform for each of the five members, lifting and lowering them as though a human sound wave. Ballads, too, were so all-in, with their neon blue stage fog, paying attention the lyrics was beside the point.
Most disappointing was the fivesome’s upselling of their own talent. Attempts to appear more musically legitimate were failed by their inability to blend, or unwillingness to sing out. You can’t create these moments any better than you can manufacture brotherhood. What they succeed at — the wish-granting of a three-quarters-full arena— they do very well. They just make it look too difficult.